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January 30, 2009

Future Shock

The Best at Being Young and an Oriole

by Kevin Goldstein

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What did I learn this winter? I learned that Baltimore catching prospect Matt Wieters is good. Well, wait a second, I already knew that, so how about, "really good"? Nope, the extra modifier just doesn't do it justice.

How about this: after looking at the performance, talking to the scouts, and seeing what our numbers people were able to uncover over the offseason, Matt Wieters is the best prospect in baseball, the best player on the Orioles right now, and quite possibly the best catcher in the game. And he's yet to play an inning in the big leagues.

No pressure, Matt.

Let's start with the basics. Wieters was the top position player available in the 2007 draft. That said, everyone knew he would drop a bit due to the selection of Scott Boras as his representative, and the bonus demands that come with it. The first surprise came when the normally budget-conscious Orioles selected him with the fifth overall pick that June. The second was when they handed him a then-record $6 million as an up-front bonus. He signed too late to make his pro debut other than a rusty six weeks in the now-defunct Hawaii Winter League, where he still got glowing reviews from the few scouts who saw him there.

With all eyes on him during his official pro debut last spring, he slugged two home runs in his first game of the year for High-A Frederick, and never looked back. He hit .345/.448/.576 in a half-season for Frederick before the Orioles did a favor to the pitchers of the Carolina League and moved him up to Double-A. The jump from A-ball to Double-A is the second-hardest adjustment a player makes when scaling the ladder on their way up through the minors, second only to the ascent to the big leagues; instead of struggling, Wieters was even better, batting .365/.460/.625 against more advanced competition. With enough at-bats to qualify, he would have won the Eastern League's batting title by 30 points, while also leading it in on-base percentage and slugging by massive margins.

Now, when ranking prospects, simply going by the numbers is a fool's choice. Knowing what a player is doing is one thing, but knowing how that player is doing it is just as vital. Scouts are great people to talk to, often giving you in-depth breakdowns on every aspect of a player's game. Those were a little harder to come by on Wieters following his season; one scout presented with the name simply laughed, stating, "What can I say? The guy is just a stud." Even beyond the simple dominance reflected in the stats, that's what he is on a scouting level as well. We're talking about a massive physical specimen who combines plus power from both sides of the plate, the strike-zone discipline of a sharp-eyed veteran, above-average defensive skills behind the plate, and a cannon for an arm, proven by the 96 mph fastballs he'd throw during his days when he did double duty as Georgia Tech's closer in college.

So we know he's great, but work done by our team of researchers and statisticians during the offseason suggests that he might just be historic. One essential measurement here at Baseball Prospectus is Clay Davenport's Equivalent Average (abbreviated as EqA),s a single figure that measures total offense and adjusts for a number of factors, including the league's offensive environment, park factors, and team pitching, while providing further balances to allow for accurate comparisons across different eras.

Applying these complex formulas to Wieters' minor league season gives him a .301 EqA for his High-A stint and a .349 mark at Double-A. EqA is scaled like batting average, so those are good numbers to be sure, but further research reveals that those are the highest marks achieved in both leagues in the last 40 years, which is as far back as our data goes. Matt Wieters wasn't just great last year, he put together one of the best single seasons in modern minor league history.

If that isn't an enthusiastic-enough endorsement, then there's PECOTA, our projection system, and the most accurate one in the business. PECOTA is a system that does what it does based on comparisons-finding similar players with similar physical tools and baseball skill sets. According to PECOTA, with a full slate of at-bats, Wieters should hit .311 with a .395 on-base percentage and a .544 slugging mark this year. That's good for a .319 EqA. How good is that? Historically great, because it would easily be the highest mark of any catcher in 2009, and only 17 catchers have exceeded that mark in the history of baseball.


2009's Top PECOTA-projected Catchers
Rk  Player         Team       EqA
 1. Matt Wieters   Orioles   .319
 2. Brian McCann   Braves    .299
 3. Joe Mauer      Twins     .298
 4. Geovany Soto   Cubs      .297
 5. Russell Martin Dodgers   .291
 6. Chris Iannetta Rockies   .291
 7. Mike Napoli    Angels    .289
 8. Jeff Clement   Mariners  .280
 9. Ryan Doumit    Pirates   .275
10. Miguel Montero D'backs   .273

Top Five Catcher Seasons, All-time
Rk Player        Year  EqA  MVP Voting
1. Mike Piazza   1997 .365     2
2. Mike Piazza   1995 .346     4
3. Johnny Bench  1972 .342     1
4. Mike Piazza   1996 .342     2
5. Javy Lopez    2003 .338     5

According to PECOTA, the most similar player in baseball history to Wieters is Mark Teixeira, another switch-hitter with plenty of power and patience, as well as the ability to hit for a high average. That combination of skills was worth eight years and $180 million on the open market this offseason; if Wieters lives up to expectations, one can only shudder at the thought of what his value might be on the market as a Teixeira clone with above-average defensive skills at catcher. No matter what the number, it certainly adds up to another big payday down the road for a Scott Boras client.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

Related Content:  Matt Wieters

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